Why Cultural Criticism is Indefensible

Thursday , 2, March 2017 57 Comments

“My own politics are on the progressive side and they influence my writing. My concerns when writing a Cthulhu novel weren’t whether or not I should shun HPL’s creations: I don’t think that at all since if I’m going to do that then the literature of the past 2000 years is going to be a problem. Everything from the works of Aristotle to Edgar Rice Burroughs were written by people who did not share my opinions or values.” — C. T. Phipps

Josephine Livingston has a piece on Cultural Criticism up over at New Republic. The most remarkable thing about it is that she writes without even for a moment acknowledging the de facto hegemony her school of thinking has maintained for nearly eighty years. In her view, it’s just as urgent as it ever was for culture critics to get out there and do whatever it is that culture critics do. She is anything if not indefatigable.

What follows is my response to her key points. Note that everything I say here amounts to little more than a paraphrase of things that J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis have said elsewhere. All of this stuff strikes me as being patently obvious, but even the supposed opponents to culture critics reflexively concede to them when they don’t have to. Here then is another perspective on things.

We know that the arts are unkillable.

Baloney. Culture critics routinely destroy whatever field they enter. Fantasy. Science fiction. Comics. Broadway musicals. Of course, whoever wrote that sentence believes that art is synonymous with subversion and corruption. Saying something like that is unkillable is like saying the impulse to commit adultery is unkillable. Way to keep the dream alive, you dogged and relentless son of a gun!!!

Escapism or ecstasy suggests an abnegation of thought: It renders the critic totally useless.

Escape requires imagination, ingenuity, and risk. If you were chained up in Plato’s cave, what would it take to even want to get out…? It would take some extraordinarily creative thinking, that’s what.

While Plato is required reading and bound to be familiar to everyone, this contempt for ecstasy is displayed here is going to be harder to unpack. I’m a hopeless romantic that’s been exposed to A. Merritt, Robert E. Howard, and C. L. Moore and I have to say… ecstasy is not just a feeling, though it is thrilling. In the context of the arts it consists of a thrill so powerful, it actually puts you in touch which something utterly transcendent. Christians are humbled by these sorts of experiences, and naturally respond with a sort of reverence as one would give to Bach or Beethoven. Progressives will respond to these things with resentment and contempt. The important thing to them is not the emotional response one has to the Moonlight Sonata or to Frédéric Chopin’s Prelude in E-Minor. That can’t relate to it, so they’ll just start talking about something else entirely, like how many colonials were exploited to produce these masterworks. How many 16th century transsexuals were passed over in the formation of the canon. And so on.

The progressives’ hatred for escapism and ecstasy does make sense. Jailers naturally hate escapism. And people creating a fake religion do not want their marks getting in contact with the real thing.

In this aesthetic space, the arts explore a less confined politics than the one that controls the state.

Jasyn Jones likens his exposure to the pulps as being like going from seeing paintings done in black and white to seeing them in color. This passage here is the reason why this is. What do you have left when escapism and ecstasy are forbidden to the point where they cannot even be imagined anymore…? You have an art which is reduced to politics: propaganda and nothing more.

The radical potential of aesthetic negotiation relies, I think, on total freedom. Decoupled from government politics, cultural politics knows no bounds.

This is hipster speak for “the personal is the political.” What it means is, that the exact sort of mentality that laid waste to the arts can be brought to bear on any aspect of life. Every institution, every business, even every personal relationship can “benefit” from this critique.

Cultural criticism is not self-indulgent: It is a service to the community…. Every piece of cultural criticism is manufactured by human community and then offered back to that community as a gesture of thanks. The critical space is ours—yours and mine.

This whole section is bunk. It’s a good example of the kind of stupid stuff you have to say if you’ve declared war on escape and ecstasy. Because notice how even the rhythms of an essay overrule the ideals of this sort of “critic.” Inexorably, every sentence and paragraph must culminate into an emotional response. To make it truly inspiring, you have to point to something beyond the individual, beyond the times, beyond even the politics. Thus you get this weird fetishization of “the community.”

It’s a piss-poor substitute for the thing these people are trying to subvert. And these people are so stupid, they don’t realize that they too are in the business of offering escape and ecstasy.

  • icewater says:

    That first article reminded me of this travesty
    and it also reminded me why I mostly avoid Cthulhu Mythos/Lovecraftian corner of modern weird fiction. It is fully “converged”, every much as it is dominated by hacks devoid of talent and originality.

    Sometimes, I wish that HPL’s legacy was guarded in the same overprotective manner that Tolkien’s is by the Tolkien Estate. Milking and questionable adaptations would still happen, but this level of mockery and subversion wouldn’t be present, nor would a legion of hack horror writers have this established shared universe behind which they can hide they lack of talent or creativity.

    • Jeffro says:

      Yeah, Cirsova was supposed to be more Sword & Planet stuff at first. But word on the street is that there’s all these non-converged Mythos authors that had nowhere else to go, so it became much more of a Weird Tales revival than originally intended.

      • caleb says:

        Which is good, really good. At least in my book.

      • deuce says:

        A good thing, indeed. If I undertood Morgan correctly, my sending him this link in late January 2016:

        …ended up, through some chain of events, motivating the Cirsova people to strike back. If I had a small part in that, I’m quite glad of it. Here I am promoting that slight shift in direction in early February 2016:


        You never know what a tossed pebble will do under the right circumstances.

      • Gaiseric says:

        No reason why it couldn’t be both. Why can’t there be Mountains of Madness on Mars?

        Actually, come to think of it, a fair bit of Leigh Brackett and CL Moore’s planet stories have an almost Lovecraftian feel to them with regards to their aliens.

        • icewater says:

          Well, in my mind, classic Weird Tales equals utter heterogeneity, utterly unpredictable cocktail of authors, styles and themes.

          So, “like Weird Tales” should very much mean that it can be both.

      • deuce says:

        Brackett and Moore were both Merritt fans, as was HPL himself. Weird Tales ran several sword & planet stories over the years, including Howard’s ALMURIC novel.

        • Gaiseric says:

          “Brackett and Moore were both Merritt fans, as was HPL himself. Weird Tales ran several sword & planet stories over the years, including Howard’s ALMURIC novel.”

          Sadly, very few Sword & Planet stories are very original. The degree to which they rigidly follow formula is kind of depressing.

          Although I admit that I only got a few novels into the Gor or Dray Prescott series, so they may have gone all over the place for all I know.

          But when Flash Gordon actually brings an Earth girl along to be his romantic interest instead of falling for the exotic local princess, that’s a BIG DEAL because nobody else did that.

        • deuce says:

          There is good S&P out there if one knows where to look. I don’t like the Gor or Kregen novels particularly. For “traditional” S&P, the Moorcock “Kane” books hold up well. Vance’s “Planet of Adventure” stuff is great and SM Stirling’s two S&P novels were a blast. Keith Taylor and David J. Lake also did excellent work with the genre.

          • deuce says:

            Oh, and Adrian Cole’s “Dream Lords” S&P stuff is cool.

          • James Sullivan says:

            I second the S.M. Stirling recommendation. They are the only two books of his that I read but they were fantastic. Until I read them, I didn’t even know what Sword & Planet fiction was. They were my gateway books.

            I was always hoping he would go back and write more of them.

          • Gaiseric says:

            To each their own. I thought Moorcock’s Kane books were some of the worst fiction ever published, and SM Stirling’s beta-male virtue signaling was painful to read. I read the Venus book and quit halfway through the Mars book, unable to gain any traction with it.

            Of course, I’m talking more about the neo-Sword & Planet that came out in the 60s, though. F. Gardner Fox’s Llarn books, Mike Resnick’s Ganymede books, Lin Carter’s Green Star or Callisto series, etc. They were painfully formulaic and unwilling to deviate from the surprisingly rigid tropes—and Moorcock’s Kane series and (at least the first book or two of) the Kregen and Gor books were as well. At least Fox had a sly nod, a faint whiff of parody, wherein his protagonist was a typical dumb jock who got lucky a lot.

            Frankly, even ERB was very formulaic, although he admitted as much at least once. It’s almost hard to read any of his series to completion because of the sense of deja vu.

          • john silence says:

            Moorcock is a VERY mixed bag. I wasn’t big fan of Kane either, but it isn’t the worst of him either. Corum books are his best, in my opinion (more enjoyable than Elric, MUCH more enjoyable than Hawkmoon or Kane).

          • Andy says:

            Paul Kearney’s The Ten Thousand is sword-and-planet fiction, although you could be forgiven for not noticing at first because it was marketed as a fantasy remake of the Anabasis.

        • Alex says:

          (replying to a comment still in moderation)
          That was you who posted that?
          Thanks! I’m pretty sure that a couple of the pieces we got that were featured in issue 4 were specifically as a result of that post.

        • deuce says:

          Yeah, I posted that. I also posted the same thing over on the conan.com forum which was still up at the time.

          The way I understood it from Morgan, I sent him the Dunham link (they pissed me off), he passed it on to somebody and it got to y’all, sparking a pushback. My recollection may be wrong, but if it isn’t, then I’m glad to have nudged things along. Doin’ my part to keep the PulpRev train rollin’. 😀

          Yeah, I don’t know why my initial post is in moderation, unless Dunham is verboten here.

          • Alex says:

            I think that the filter catches anything with links; they don’t go to spam, but they do require moderation.

            I forget the exact source of where I first saw it, but I’m 99% sure it was probably from Jeffro’s G+ feed.

          • Alex says:

            But yeah, apparently that’s a big part of how we ended up with Adrian Cole writing new Dream Lords stories for us, through Morgan having passed that along to him.

          • deuce says:

            I ran into it when some jackass posted the link — to promote Dunhams — on a Mythos forum where I’m a member. The pebble rolled into an avalanche after that. It takes a village of Deplorables to make the PulpRev happen, after all.

            It took almost a year for the losers at Dunhams Manor to raise a mere $1000 to get their crapwagon project going. Meanwhile, Cirsova is out there publishing like crazy and paying THREE TIMES as much. Hmmm. I wonder what the moral of the story would be?

          • Alex says:

            For all I know, Dunhams has done some good, serious work and just wanted to try something different, which is why I didn’t press harder than I did to try to start an actual beef with them.

            I do really believe, though, that self-aware parodies and spoofs have become such the norm that they really don’t bring anything new or interesting to the table. I find mythos stuff in general to be way too self-referential.

            Spoilers for issue 5, Cthulhu does not get name dropped.

          • john silence says:

            Well, from what I can see, they saw it fit to point out that theirs is not an anti-Lovecraft magazine.
            I’m guessing they’ll be going for hipstery parodies and subversion/inversion of his setups… which is, truth be told, tiresome in itself, not to mention how those are already common staples of modern Cthulhu Mythos (TM) fiction.

          • Alex says:

            Yeah, they added that disclaimer some time after our post and Deuce’s forum post.
            They also bumped their rates up from $25 for a 5k-10k story, to $50 for a 5k-7k story, to .01 per word for 2k-5k stories (which is about 2/3s what we pay for stories that length; we pay .02 on the first 2.5k of stories we buy).

          • deuce says:

            I’m willing to admit that I might’ve been somewhat offbase about that project and Dunhams as a whole, but when you phrase things the way they did INITIALLY, then they should expect to get slammed. This was at the tail-end of the major HPL-bashing going on at the WFC etc. As you and John note, hipster parodies of HPL are just tired and lame.

          • Alex says:

            Yeah, to me, it was a combination of the timing of the thing (it was pretty soon after the Lovecraft bust controversy, if I recall, plus there had been all of these things coming out as “Lovecraft, but examining privilege!” and “Lovecraft, but not sexist and ableist and removing the stigma of mental illness!”) and the fact that they were offering rather paltry rates. I mean, even paying semi-pro rates, I feel like I’m ripping writers off!

  • bob k. mando says:

    school of thinking has maintained for nearly eighty years.

    the ‘Progressive’ school has been dominant in America since the end of the Civil War.

    the original Republican Party was the Radical and Progressive party which brought us Prohibition, Women’s Voting and the abolition of slavery.

    Teddy Roosevelt started a new party when he challenged Republican Taft … TR’s new party was the “Progressive Party”, because TR was a Progressive. and knew it.

    it’s only since the 1960s that the Republicans have forgotten this basic fact.

    • deuce says:

      William Dean Howells of The Atlantic Monthly set to work immediately — and by that, I mean IMMEDIATELY — after the Civil War to implement a doctrine of “socialist realism” on American lit that remains much in effect to this day. Check out a write-up on Howells here:


    • Jeffro says:

      My claim is that fantasy and science fiction was free of this sort of thing up through the thirties. Progressivism goes further back, sure. Some people will even make the point that it goes back to the garden of Eden. That’s fine, I guess. But it’s not particularly helpful in the context of what I’m writing about.

      The real bedrock of fantasy and science fiction as we know it is astonishingly good. It is as good as it is because it is unselfconsciously and unapologetically Christian, Western, and/or American. It suffered a dramatic loss in appeal and quality when a new generation of editors and authors pursued the sort of “seriousness” that culture critics of Josephine Livingston’s stripe set themselves up to offer. It might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but that was a blind alley, a creative dead end.

    • deuce says:

      I agree with your basic argument, Jeffro. I wasn’t really disagreeing. Simply pointing out how early “socialist realism” stamped down on American lit IN GENERAL. “Serious” literature fell into line with Howells’ doctrine, but American pop lit, exemplified by the pulps, carried on ignoring the snobs. Here’s a good piece on how ERB reinvigorated the American popular literary scene — and possibly saved it from an early convergence:


      A good quote from Stableford:

      “Burroughs demonstrated…that there is something in the Romantic tradition that offers a deep and fundamental appeal to the human imagination…[and] Tarzan does so by appealing to the frustrations of conformity that we all feel in living in a complex society…[but] Tarzan does not merely live an ideal existence in his symbolic jungle, but he also carries the skills learned there into his social intercourse with the damaged products of civilization.”

      American weird/SFF lit was reasonably free of Howells’ nonsense until JWC, the Futurians and others began giving a damn about “serious” literary legitimacy. The standards they looked to were ultimately derived from Howells.

  • B&N says:

    “Everything from the works of Pelosi to Reid, from Clinton to Obama, were written by people who did not share our opinions or values. That is what lead to the Trumpslide.”

  • Jon Mollison says:

    She is handing us the keys to the destruction of her own world view. In the end she admits that culture is democratic, and that all that it take for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.

    Every comment mocking the Oscars, every sneer at ESPN’s annual SJW award show, and every insulting review of John Scalzi’s book is another assault on a hill controlled by her ilk in the culture war.

    Her tune will change as the alt-right finds its voice, flexes its muscles, and drives her and her kind from that hill. And in response we will point to that comment, laugh, and sneer, “You wrote and lived by this rule, so now shall you die by it.”

    • deuce says:

      That’s why they’re trying to shut down dissent from the Narrative by any means possible on every platform possible. “Cultural Criticism” is there to keep the target culture cowed long enough for the takeover to be accomplished.

      We are not cattle.

      It puts me in mind of that lost Kipling poem, “When the Western Citizen Began to Hate.”

  • Not All Lovecraftian Writers.

    • deuce says:

      Hey Dave! They’re still out there. Robert M. Price is certainly one of them. The current Thought Police Regime in weird lit just makes things harder on such Mythos/Lovecraftian writers. Good thing Cirsova and Weirdbook are around.

      • caleb says:

        Some characters are going hard after Price, from what I understand. I think it was that Scott Nicolay fella (yes, that same guy that said how he wants to… ehm.. pay his respects at HPL’s grave) that said how the very presence of him, Joshi and some others at conventions creates “hostile environment” or something like that.

        • keith says:

          I am familiar with Nicolay. That is, with his writing.
          His collection of weird horror, which somehow had some 50 or more five stars reviews on Amazon back when I bought it, proved to be pretty efficient soporific…
          To be fair, I do make a point of reading modern short horror late at night. But, that is good for sifting out stuff that fails to be either engrossing or genuinely scary as much as it is for accenting the effects of genuinely good stories.

      • deuce says:

        I believe you’re right. What a twit.

      • Thanks Deuce. I hear you loud and clear.

    • caleb says:

      There are good authors out there, quite a few of ’em. One who, as I can see, praised your own collection is a good example, quite excellent and incomparable author (though, something of an acquired taste).

      Tho, I can at least sympathise with sentiment expressed above, based on the sort of authors that get in the spotlight. Folks who can’t stop talking about what a horrible human being HPL was (without even trying to inform themselves about him, obviously), what a poor writer he was, attaching new “-isms” and “-phobias” to him every month etc… and yet are perfectly happy to use his creations or to earn money from themed anthologies are, quite honestly, scum of the Earth.

  • B&N says:

    Critisicsm is a “gesture of thanks”?

    No, it’s not, it’s a complex opinion.

    “I do point out every little thing that’s bad about a game, but then, I’m a critic, it’d be weird if I didn’t. If I put people’s balls in my mouth for a living, I’d be a prostitute, or possibly a GameSpot employee, but I criticize, so I’m a critic. And I don’t believe in scores because I don’t believe a complex opinion can be represented numerically. You like numbers? How about four, as in fourk you! Do you really need someone in authority giving you a simple “yea” or “nay” before you buy anything? Why don’t you roll over so they can stamp on the other side of your face?”

    http:// zeropunctuation. wikia. com/wiki /Mailbag_Showdown

    • Jesse Lucas says:

      Yahtzee is one of the great critics of our time. It’s a shame he hasn’t found his legs writing fiction yet, he has definite potential to be the next Douglas Adams.

      • NARoberts says:

        On the other hand, he seems to be a progressive, so I don’t know why we would want him to.

        And he is so crude–if Neil Gaiman doesn’t deserve a pass, why should he?

        • B&N says:

          Neil Gaiman randomly forces unnecessary crude into his otherwise good stories–that’s bothersome.
          For Yahtzee, him and crude are one in the same, like South Park.

          • NARoberts says:

            Yes, but do we want more of that stuff? You say: “Neil Gaiman randomly forces unnecessary crude into his otherwise good stories…”

            His stories are otherwise good, but the crudeness is not. So I don’t really see how a story that’s all crude is ok when we agree that just a little bit ruins an otherwise palatable work.

          • Jesse Lucas says:

            Yahtzee’s best work is his Extra Punctuation column, and while he tries to shove crudity into it he can’t always find a place. His novels aren’t too crude at all, but his characterization is woefully poor.

        • keith says:

          Progressive? I remember him making fun of SJWs, plus he had no issues with attacking games that were critical darlings. And Escapist isn’t thought too highly among gaming SJWs, right?

          I am genuinely curios. I am less and less into gaming and related stuff, but I do remember that he was definitely NOT a progressive back when GG and all that started.

          • NARoberts says:

            I remember his anti-feminist jokes…yes, but he goes with the usual: “Call of Duty is bad because it’s a macho American power fantasy” shtick; once comparing a empty dystopia to “Margaret Thatcher’s Britain;” saying WWII was the last ware where we were “unambiguously the good guys” or something like that…there are more. I think he is kinda confused. It’s like he just takes in all the propaganda and believes it, but has to much common sense to go with the SJW stuff he personally comes into contact with–but he doesn’t realize they are the same thing. Maybe one day he will “figure it out” and switch sides.

        • Anthony says:

          Because Yahtzee’s work SHOULD be crude. Neil Gaiman is writing work where crudeness is totally at odds with the tone and tenor of the story.

          It’s like saying “If we think the action scenes in ‘Deadpool’ are so great, why do we oppose them in a Disney movie?” It’s apples and oranges.

  • Bryce says:

    “Jailers naturally hate escapism” – best line in the article.

    I dig Doc E.E. Smith, so I must not be a jailer…

  • David VanDyke says:

    I think we need to add and spread “Neo-Puritans” as an accurate term for modern ultra-progressives, or capital-P Progressives, if you prefer. I say that to strengthen the difference between the average unthinking progressive who merely wants what I think we all want–justice, liberty, fairness, a general equality of opportunity, an end to unjust discrimination and so on–and those who want to make sinners and criminals out of all who cross their fine and mobile lines of offendedness.

    I like the term because it draws the parallel in the mind of the common man between those who applied their Pharisaical interpretation of the Bible ultra-legalistically, making all around them miserable (and, often, being secret hypocrites themselves) and those who today ultra-legalistically apply the new canon of social and socialist purity (and, of course, also often being secret hypocrites).

    The average voter often thinks “sure, suppressing that particular evil seems like a good idea, so let’s make a law against or shame those who do it,” forgetting, of course, that any virtue can become a vice and that legislating issues of morality tends to fail the more they approach absolute prohibition of something. So often, perversely, the more something is prohibited (past some sweet spot of suppression) by these Neo-Puritans, the more the prohibition is flouted and creates a backlash, just as the Prohibition of alcohol did in the America of 1920-1933.

    Forgive the pop-ups on this site; the original article seems to be taken down and this is the only place I could find it.


    This is another good one from the Aussie viewpoint:


    • B&N says:

      “Neo-Amish” is the word you’re looking for. It emphasizes that they are anti-technology. Just ask them what self-defense tools are protected under the second amendment and they’ll tell you anything patented before 1791–the same answer the amish give when asked what is OK to own. Not a coincidence.

    • deuce says:

      People don’t hate the Amish. The Puritans, on the other hand…

      This is about rhetorical effectiveness, not dialectical precision.

  • keith says:

    Yeah, that term could be pretty damaging if used right. Especially as they tend to accent their opposition to religion, and that often means Christianity and only Christianity. Thus, pointing out parallels and connections between them and the most closed-minded, backwards strain of Christianity on a regular basis would be brutal.

  • Durandel Almiras says:

    Off Topic – Jeffro, is Bundle of Holding tracking Castalia? The two bundles present are for Classic Battletech and Designers & Dragons, Shannon Appelcline’s four-book history of RPG publishers.

    I don’t much on either, but that latter one might feed into the Appendix N discussion.

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